June 1982 – April 1983
Food shopping was a weekly challenge. Rumors were rampant. The big panic one week was that the only supermarket in town (I think it was called Robinson’s) had a limited supply of toilet paper. Now, if you have never been faced with the prospect of running out of toilet paper, I can tell you, it is quite a concern. I stocked up on toilet paper (in fact, when we left Nigeria, I took quite a supply with me – it doesn’t way anything and I just stuffed it into crevices and nooks in the containers we built when we left Nigeria). I had a couple of other strange items in our container; took me a few months back in the modern world to drop my habit of panic buying and stocking up. As a matter of fact, I think I am still trying to change my habit of stockpiling. Oh yes, I think I may still have some Reynolds aluminum foil stashed somewhere.
We were always able to get eggs. When I think back on it now, I am surprised that we survived. I always bought my eggs from the street vendors. I usually bought a crate of 30 eggs – we ate a lot of eggs for protein, as meat, that is eatable meat, was very hard to come by. These eggs were stacked high and wide and not only out in the open along the streets, but very often in the sun. Needless to say, we did have enough sense not to eat soft-boiled eggs or eggs sunny-side up – too often. As mentioned in another article, we were able to get yogurt, but the milk was raw. We had to boil it and filter it, refrigerate it and when we skimmed the cream from the milk, I had cream.
Pork and poultry was almost always available. I can’t say that the chickens were always plump and tender, but they were good enough to eat. John, our steward, could work miracles with those skinny chickens.
John was also amazing on the charcoal barbecue and often barbecued chicken and pork spare ribs – we ate a lot of both. One of our other favorite foods was coleslaw which we dubbed “Kano State Salad.” John could never make a small salad. I think he always made a large portion, because it did not keep well and he then took it home. Coleslaw was one of his family’s favorite foods, probably because it was free from our kitchen. John had a few other specialties and I can’t say that we ever had a bad meal. Mind you, with the limited supply and variety of foods available, you never uttered a complaint.
The only beef we ate in Kano was beef fillet. Now let me explain that to you, lest you think we were spoiled. If you ever saw the cows that wondered around in the bush, you would understand that fillet was practically the only meat on the cattle. We could not buy beef in the supermarket or in the open market (at least so far as I can remember), but we did manage to find a supplier of beef. The meat, beef, pork and other curious meat was available from and “importer” who sold his supplies in a little white hut. The meat was in heaps on a tarp and as the “butcher” held up the meat, you either accepted to rejected the pieces. The fillet was purchased by the piece, probably because the fillets were too skinny to weigh. Sometimes I managed to point out a piece of meat here and there and when I found a piece of eatable beef, I bought it. I usually stocked up with 4-5 whole beef fillets. This particular butcher always greeted us at the window of his shop by holding up a dead pig’s head and then screeching with laughter, as I turned away with a bit of an unpleasant look on my face. The butcher weighed out or just gave me a price for the meat and I paid. It didn’t matter what cut of beef you bought, or what cut of pork you bought, the price was the same. So, I only bought beef fillet but I did savor and purchase various cuts of pork such as spare ribs, pork chops, tenderloin, roast, etc. None of the meat was ever hung, but for some reason, pork was always quite tender. For the beef fillet, I devised another program.
Once I got the beef home, I cleaned it, washed it, rolled it up in a dish towel and placed it in a Pyrex casserole dish and aged it for 2-3 weeks before I put it in the freezer for later use. Each day I unwrapped the beef, rinsed the beef, the Pyrex dish and the dish towel, wrapped the beef in the clean towel, Pyrex dish and stored it in the fridge to repeat the process the next day. I learned that the beef did not rot, so long as I rinsed it every day, rinsed the dish towel and the Pyrex dish and kept the meat cold enough in the refrigerator. Fortunately, the meat was very tender after 2-3 weeks and we had some marvelous meals, particularly when we had guests. We had quite a few guests, as there seemed to be quite a few footloose bachelors around always looking for a place to get a beer and a meal. Part of our terms in Kano were to house visitors, so we had a private section in the house or what you might call guest quarters.
The markets provided an abundant supply of vegetables in season and soon John and I devised some very tasty vegetable dishes to accompany our daily meals. John was quite inventive and very eager to learn. The first few days, John always announced, “Mata, chop is ready.” I soon learned that chop did not mean chop, it meant lunch or dinner. So, we had chop for breakfast, lunch and dinner.